Mobile product development principles – from Smithsonian

Today, Nancy Proctor, the head of mobile strategy and initiatives for the Smithsonian Institution, gave an online talk about Smithsonian’s mobile strategy.

Here are key points and comments Nancy shared about developing mobile products…

Mobile visitor experience

Mobile is dissolving the walls of the museum. Museums are becoming distributed networks. Visitors have experiences in the physical museum, with mobile products, plus a host of (increasingly mobile) information outside the control of the museum, like posting photos to Flickr.

Mobile itself is diverse, including both pocketable and portable devices. Mobile includes smart phones, but don’t forget 70% of the world’s phone users who have just voice/SMS phones — an important, but rapidly shrinking market share. Apps are reaching a small minority of visitors now, but app use is exploding.

Mobile includes podcasts and downloadable content like PDFs, eBooks. It can be devices that visitors own, or devices that are provided onsite by a museum. Mobile web sites, apps, and large-screen web sites all can be seen on smartphones and tablets.

Mobile should be understood as social media and projects should leverage its ability to create conversations, communities, and collaborations both alone and in combination with other platforms. Mobile projects should expand and create new opportunities for engagement, not seek to reproduce existing ones on mobile devices.

To make mobile products easy to use by many people, mobile initiatives should use standard interfaces and include clear, easy routes to find other mobile products and platforms. And people of all abilities should be considered (e.g., blind, poor vision or deaf), in creating accessible tools. This is increasingly easy to do with the accessibly tools built into modern smartphones and tablets.

In terms of mobile access to web sites, Nancy finds that 2% traffic to museum’s sites via mobile devices is pretty much average now. On IDEA’s WebExhibits site, we have closer to 8% mobile share, so it depends.

Money & resources

Nancy suggests that mobile web sites (web apps) can and should created by a museum’s existing web teams. It’s just a matter of formatting for a smaller screen. On the other hand, native apps (e.g., an app for an iPad) may be a better candidate for an external vendor. (See our post about making web/native apps.)

Even if vendors are brought in (e.g., to make an app), Nancy wants to see more economy of scale so that hundreds of exhibitions and museums can inexpensively leap into onto mobile devices. That means highly-reusable modules; not years of designer and programmer time for each new app.

Also, museums and the broader community should reuse with Open Source libraries both within and among museums. Within an organization, developers should try to reuse existing mobile code modules, so as to avoid writing new and/or dedicated code and using proprietary or dedicated systems. Moreover, the community will benefit from sharing code, tools, best practices and other learnings between museums.

Finally, Nancy says, “I don’t think anyone is going to get rich buying and selling apps right now.” Mobile can support existing revenue streams, but don’t try to think of mobile purely as a business right now. She’s giving a talk next week about business models at MW2011.

Research & measure

Embed metrics and analytic tools in every mobile product, and include audience research and product evaluation in every mobile project to inform iterative development and ensure quality.


Too many projects die after the funding/development period, and that’s a higher risk with mobile since devices are changing so fast. What you make this year might not work on the majority of devices in 2-3 years. With the exception of simple apps for short, temporary exhibits, plan for the future.

That means building mobile websites on a standards-based content management system, so that you can port you content to future systems. It also means using vendors that allow you to export your own data in a standards-complient, or at least flexible format.

Digital content should be conceived for cross-platform use and re-use according to mobile content standards which will inevitably evolve.

Every mobile project or product must include a commercial or other plan for its sustainability and maintenance — That could mean cash or time, but there should be some way to update content and fix bugs down the road.

To learn more, see the archived one-hour talk and PPT slides, provided by MIDEA.


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